National Park

Flooding in Yellowstone National Park closed a major road to a nearby town. : NPR

Old Gardiner Road improvement in Yellowstone National Park on July 20, 2022.

Jacob W. Frank / National Park Service


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Jacob W. Frank / National Park Service


Old Gardiner Road improvement in Yellowstone National Park on July 20, 2022.

Jacob W. Frank / National Park Service

GARDINER, Mont. – Tourism in Yellowstone National Park is down about 40% this summer after devastating flooding destroyed roads in and around the park in June. Towns at two of the park’s five entrances have been completely cut off.

Raging floodwaters washed away large sections of paved roads in and near the park, and now the north entrance to the nearby town of Gardiner, Montana, is closed. It is expected to be so for at least two years.

“Without access to the park, Gardiner’s economy was collapsing,” said Emil McCain, owner of a wildlife guide business.

Although vehicles are not permitted, tourists can walk or cycle a mile through the park on the north entrance road, where you can view the washes.

Olivia Weitz/Yellowstone Public Radio


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Olivia Weitz/Yellowstone Public Radio


Although vehicles are not permitted, tourists can walk or cycle a mile through the park on the north entrance road, where you can view the washes.

Olivia Weitz/Yellowstone Public Radio

“Without the entry into the national park, there wasn’t much appeal for people to come and stay at our lodges or eat at our restaurants or even participate in other activities like rafting or horseback riding” , he explained.

About 900 people live in Gardiner, but each summer the town straddling the Yellowstone River is crowded with thousands of visitors staying in hotels and corporate clients that rely almost exclusively on park visitors.

In July, the park opened a lifeline: improving an old dirt road from Gardiner to Yellowstone that’s typically only used by cyclists, hikers, and one-way vehicular traffic.

It took tons of heavy equipment work to make it easier to drive, but now the park service allows a limited number of guide service vehicles to use the road to bring tourists into the park. It is still closed to private vehicles.

After the flood, the wildlife guide company Yellowstone Wild shifted from focusing only on private tours to offering public tours as a means of offering entry into the park to people visiting Gardiner.

Olivia Weitz/Yellowstone Public Radio


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After the flood, the wildlife guide company Yellowstone Wild shifted from focusing only on private tours to offering public tours as a means of offering entry into the park to people visiting Gardiner.

Olivia Weitz/Yellowstone Public Radio

Wildlife guide Matt DeMassino says the Old Gardiner Road dates back to the stagecoach era.

“This is exactly the route Teddy Roosevelt would have taken when he visited the park in 1903,” DeMassino said. “And before that, Chester A. Arthur, the first president to come visit the park, came through here, so I’m going to start calling it the presidential road.”

A great experience for a few tourists

The road winds steeply through sagebrush hills to the massive steaming mineral deposits of Mammoth Hot Springs.

On a recent road trip, and after taking a section of untarnished road, a guide driving a van full of tourists stopped in a vast green landscape to view wildlife. After all the rain the park received before the floods, the foliage is much greener than it normally would be in late July.

A moose nestled among willows near a stream, and Harry Buis from the Netherlands looked through binoculars at a black bear. He and his son Jean Leon were seeing Yellowstone for the first time.

Jean Leon and her father, Harry Buis, get a closer look at basking wolf cubs as they wake up to the morning sun in Yellowstone’s Hayden Valley.

Olivia Weitz/Yellowstone Public Radio


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Jean Leon and her father, Harry Buis, get a closer look at basking wolf cubs as they wake up to the morning sun in Yellowstone’s Hayden Valley.

Olivia Weitz/Yellowstone Public Radio

“I loved the animals we saw and was really surprised to see the wolves. I didn’t expect that,” said Jean Leon.

During a normal summer, this northern loop of park roads is often congested with cars, which cluster along narrow exits when someone spots wildlife.

Lynn Harvey, visiting from Texas, had planned to drive her rental car into the park. She didn’t learn that Gardiner’s north entrance was closed until she arrived in Montana. She signed on for the tour instead and was not disappointed.

“And with the rafting and the trips in the park, I don’t think you miss anything,” she said. “We don’t feel like we missed anything other than driving, and I’m happy.”

On a recent weekend, 30 such visits entered the park through the Gardiner entrance. That compares to around 1,700 cars on a typical summer day.

Park works to help nearby towns

Yellowstone National Park Superintendent Cam Sholly said the goal is to open up the park as much as possible for the benefit of tourists and businesses that rely on spending more than $230 million a year alone. in this end of the park.

“Anything we can do to regain some level of access for these communities as quickly as possible is critical for us,” Sholly said.

In its second year, a food truck and music venue near Yellowstone’s north entrance decided to stay open after the flood.

Olivia Weitz/Yellowstone Public Radio


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In its second year, a food truck and music venue near Yellowstone’s north entrance decided to stay open after the flood.

Olivia Weitz/Yellowstone Public Radio

He says it will likely be years before there is a permanent solution to the park entrance road in Gardiner. For now, the park is trying to strike a balance between allowing guides to use Old Gardiner Road and ensuring construction crews can open it up for tourists to start using in the meantime. this autumn.

“We all know it’s not going to be normal,” Sholly said. “We also know that it can’t just be opened up on Old Gardiner Road because if we don’t give these contractors time to work and they don’t finish the road before winter, it opens up a whole other series of problems that we will have to deal with.”

Tourism-dependent businesses in Gardiner are grateful the park has restored at least some access, but the Chamber of Commerce’s Terese Petcoff says the 30-odd or so visitors that make their way to the park each day won’t keep all of them afloat. city ​​businesses.

“Say you’re a farmer, it’s like your whole fields are collapsing into a sinkhole,” she said. “That’s how I would put it in comparison to people who aren’t from here or haven’t experienced a tourist economy.”

Four hotels and three restaurants in Gardiner have already closed.

Absaroka Lodge in Gardiner, with an occupancy of 41, averaged between 5 and 10 bookings per night in July.

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Absaroka Lodge in Gardiner, with an occupancy of 41, averaged between 5 and 10 bookings per night in July.

Olivia Weitz/Yellowstone Public Radio

The Absaroka Lodge, built just above the banks of the Yellowstone River, with an occupancy of 41, is still open.

Kiana Linares works at the front desk and says the lower level of one of their buildings is vacant.

Linares says very few people make advance reservations now.

“I don’t think we registered people who had already booked tours,” she said. “I think they book them as they get here once they realize they can’t get in unless they book a tour or drive to West Yellowstone.”

The west entrance is about a three hour drive from Gardiner.

Businesses here hope that planned improvements to Old Gardiner Road will be successfully completed in October, as planned. Every winter the other four entrances to the park close, so road access from Gardiner, which is generally open year-round, could help the town have a good winter tourist season.